The Poem as a Criticism of Enlightenment Thinking: Matthew Arnold lived during the Victorian era, a time of major social changes brought on by events like the Industrial Revolution and the expansion of the British Empire. Many Victorian writers conveyed ambivalence or outright dismay about these changes, particularly regarding advancements in science and technology. The Industrial Revolution was largely ushered in by the Age of Enlightenment in late 17th- and 18th-century Europe. The Enlightenment was an intellectual and philosophical movement that emphasized rational and scientific thinking. Though many modern advances are a direct result of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, many people disapproved of the broad devaluation of nature and religion that followed. “Dover Beach” is one of numerous texts that engage with this concern.
- For discussion: How does “Dover Beach” approach humanity’s loss of faith? What words or phrases does Arnold’s speaker use to communicate his concerns?
- For discussion: Why does the speaker find it concerning that people are losing their faith? What are some of the consequences of this shift, according to the speaker? Cite examples from the text in your answer.
- For discussion: Does the speaker offer any solutions by the end of the poem? What are they? Do you agree with them? Why or why not?
Theme of Suffering: By the end of “Dover Beach,” the speaker concludes that, though the world “seems / To lie before us like a land of dreams,” it really has neither “certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain.” Therefore, suffering is imminent and optimism about the future is unfounded.
- For discussion: How does the speaker build up to the argument that suffering is inevitable? Does he offer evidence to support this claim? Why or why not?
- For discussion: How does the poem’s melancholy tone reveal the theme of suffering? What kind of language does the speaker use? Is it effective? Why or why not?
- For discussion: What is the primary reason that humanity is destined for misery? Cite evidence from the text to support your answer.
The Sea as a Symbol of Faith: The speaker in “Dover Beach” vividly describes the sea in order to express his concern about a loss of religious faith. He says that the “Sea of Faith” used to be “full” and “round earth’s shore / Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.” Now, the Sea of Faith retreats in a “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar.”
- For discussion: Trace the speaker’s description of the sea over the course of the poem. How does his language change? What kinds of nouns and adjectives are used?
- For discussion: How does the withdrawal of the Sea of Faith inform the speaker’s view that the world “Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light”? What does the speaker seem to be arguing through the symbolism of the sea’s receding tide?
- For discussion: If the “Sea of Faith” symbolizes religious faith, what does the shore, or beach, symbolize? What is the symbolic relationship between the sea and the shore? How does this relationship help to convey the poem’s themes?
Study the Relationship Between Imagery and Tone: Arnold uses intense auditory and visual imagery to create tone in “Dover Beach.” Important themes, such as the consequences of humanity’s loss of faith, are conveyed by the relationship between imagery and tone. Encourage your students to track the types of images used and to reflect on their reactions to them.
- For discussion: Compare and contrast the tone that is evoked when Arnold uses visual imagery, which describes how something looks, and auditory imagery, which describes how something sounds. How do you feel...
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- when you envision the sight of the shore and the sea? What about when you imagine the sound of “the grating roar/ Of pebbles which the waves draw back”? Is one type of imagery more effective than the other? Which one, and why?
- For discussion: Which phrases and lines stand out to you? Is there an image, whether visual or auditory, that particularly moves you? If so, what effect does it produce? What ideas, if any, are conveyed by the image?
- For discussion: How does the intensity of the imagery and tone in “Dover Beach” change when the poem is read aloud versus silently? Is one reading experience more effective? If so, why?
Additional Discussion Questions:
- The speaker concludes “Dover Beach” by describing “ignorant armies” that “clash by night.” What might he be referring to? What do the ignorant armies have to do with humanity’s loss of faith?
- Though the poem is generally mournful and pessimistic, the speaker does suggest a source of hope. What is the speaker hopeful about? What is the most reliable thing in life, now that most people have lost their faith?
- How would you describe the character of the speaker? What traits are revealed based on his language and observations?
Tricky Issues to Address While Teaching
Arnold’s Language is Unfamiliar: Though “Dover Beach” may be more accessible than some other Victorian poetry, the text includes vocabulary words, sentence structures, and figurative language that may be unfamiliar to students.
- What to do: As a class, discuss vocabulary words, symbols, metaphors, or allusions that students find confusing. In each case, unpack the language that makes the passage difficult. Advise students to paraphrase or reword the passage in order to parse its meaning for themselves.
- What to do: Remind students that figurative language is intended to be challenging because it makes a passage’s meaning more implicit and therefore more impactful. By analyzing a poem’s words, structures, and figurative language, students can uncover hidden themes that carry great significance.
The Poem Predicts Pain and Misery: “Dover Beach” can be an emotionally difficult text because of its pessimism, especially regarding the loss of faith and the inevitability of suffering. Over the course of four stanzas, the speaker grapples with serious and sometimes terrifying social changes. To fully grasp the poem, readers must engage with these darker themes.
- What to do: Reserve “Dover Beach” for students who are mature enough to read and discuss it. If you suspect your students may not be emotionally equipped to tackle the poem, consider selecting a less sobering text, such as Arnold’s “The Scholar-Gipsy” or William Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.”
Alternative Approaches to Teaching "Dover Beach"
While the main ideas, themes, and discussion questions above are typically the focal points of units involving teaching “Dover Beach,” the following suggestions represent alternative readings that may enrich your students’ experience and understanding of the poem.
Consider the speaker’s audience. In the final stanza of “Dover Beach,” the speaker enjoins his “love” to “be true / To one another” because the world is “as . . . a darkling plain.” Whom is the speaker talking to? What do we know about them? What is implied about the relationship between the speaker and the person being addressed? What do you think inspired the speaker to tell this person about how terrible the world is now that humanity has lost its faith?
Have students write their own lyric poems. An effective way to understand lyric poetry is to dismantle its form and construct it anew. Encourage students to write a lyric poem of their own using the same elements as “Dover Beach.” This lesson will be particularly interesting to students who enjoy learning about the imagery and figurative language in “Dover Beach.” Instruct your students to write a poem that, like Arnold’s poem, uses striking visual and auditory imagery about a setting in nature. Encourage them to use imagery that represents their feelings, perhaps while addressing a significant social or cultural change. By working to replicate descriptive imagery to communicate their thoughts and emotions, they will gain greater insight into Arnold’s poetry and lyric poetry in general.